Upper Limb Prosthetics: When Will They Have a Sense of Touch?
by Amber Henson, on Aug 22, 2023
In July, 2023, “60 Minutes” produced a segment on “Advancements in Prosthetic Limb Technology.” This 14-minute story discussed where the technology stands currently and what the future may hold. To summarize, there are individuals with upper limb amputations who have had a sense of touch returned. The segment features Brandon Presswood, who lost his hand and lower forearm in an industrial accident. Four years later, he began participating in experiments at the Veterans Administration that he hoped would lead to a restored sense of touch. After six years of work, Brandon can now feel with the tips of his prosthetic fingers. In addition, the narration on the segment states that he controls his prosthesis with “his thoughts.”
For context, current myoelectric prostheses are seemingly controlled by thoughts. In reality, existing devices are controlled by the electrical signals generated by muscles in the residual limb. Patients think about opening their prosthetic hand, their muscles respond and the hand opens. Brandon’s setup is different from this. He has implanted electrodes that are pulling signals from his nerves rather than his muscles. This allows for more intuitive control — less room for mistakes and an easier learning curve. Brandon is using existing motor pathways, but not exactly thought, because there’s no cortical implant (though you do see that used later in the video for people with paralysis). Something that congenital patients should keep in mind is that this may not be an option for them in the future as those same nerves may not exist in their arm.
In addition, Brandon is able to control each finger individually — which on-the-market multi-articulating myoelectric hands cannot currently offer. This is again possible because of those electrodes implanted in his arm and the cutting-edge, government funded technology.
So that is what the future of upper limb prosthetic technology may hold. But when is this kind of technology going to become available to the general public? Well, the “60 Minutes” segment did not give a timeline, but we can tell you that prosthetic technology has made huge advancements in just the past 15 years. This CBS local news coverage video from 2010 mentions the use of fiber optics to control prosthetic hand function, and the hope that feeling will eventually be able to be returned to patients with amputations. It may indeed take less than 15 years from now for this “feeling” technology to be available to the general public.
Our Arm Dynamics clinical team is not only involved in various research and development efforts (including research on nerve implants) we’re also actively engaged in making sure our patients know exactly how to use whatever type of prosthetic device they choose. Our clinical therapy specialists work closely with our prosthetists to make sure each of our patients returns home with a device they are comfortable using.
If you're looking to learn more about how you or your loved one could be fit with the latest technology, please contact us. We offer complimentary consultations for anyone interested, either in person or via video chat. If you have experience with upper limb prosthetics and would like to leave a comment, please do so below. We hope you have found this article helpful.